Regarding media criticism and commentary, you’ll never have to stand in line for your ration of condescension, snobbery, ignorance, fatuity, and flat-out stupidity from The New York Times. It’s my favorite newspaper. I’ve read it daily for more than half a century. In my experience, however, their movie reviews rarely mention writers at all, unless they happen also to be the director. Times critics and columnists seem to think directors just make up their movies as they film them.
In a recent article in the Arts section, there is a quote from a presumed expert regarding practitioners who ply the writing trade in television. “I hope it doesn’t take away from writers practicing their art,” opines this purported culture maven. He goes on to say, “There’s quality work on TV now. It’s not as shameful to write for television as it once was.”
I envision in my mind a shamed, bedraggled, besotted scribe stumbling down the street late at night crying out, “Someone stop me before I write for TV again!”
The Times blithely asserts that writing for TV is not an art.
Grudgingly they acknowledge, however, unlike in the past, nowadays there is quality work available on the tube. They never heard of Sid Caesar or Jackie Gleason and their perpetually brilliant TV shows broadcast live during the medium’s first decade seventy years ago?
Writing for Caesar’s Show of Shows were Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, and Carl Reiner, among others.
The NYT never heard of Paddy Chayefsky? Rod Serling?
They never heard of Playhouse Ninety? All in the Family? Dallas? The Simpsons? Saint Elsewhere? Northern Exposure? West Wing? The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
Today’s TV, particularly cable and streaming, represents nothing less than the finest writing in the history of the planet. As always and inevitably, there is no shortage of junk out there too. There is so much work of high quality, however, that I know no one who can keep up with all of it.
I’m one of those people who believes that The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, to take two stellar examples, are among the greatest achievements in the history of dramatic narrative creation going back thousands of years to the Periclean era of ancient Greece.
In the past, I have debunked the phenomenon called ‘genre.’ I have argued that there are only two genres: 1) good movies; 2) bad movies.
I have said that the former engage audiences; the latter are boring. From time to time I am approached by producers asking me to connect them with a writer who is would be well suited to write a particular project. Sometimes the producers indicate to me that they believe the particular script they seek is uniquely appropriate to be written by, say, an African-American, or a woman, or a Hispanic writer.
I ask them: Please tell me what kind of script would not be appropriate for an African-American or a woman or a Hispanic to write? They say to me, “Given the thematic focus, and the subject matter of the script, only an insider could have a full and thorough conversancy with its themes.
I point out to them that sometimes the most effective writer may well prove to be an outsider.
Outsiders can bring a fresh perspective to a dramatic universe. Often an outsider has a better shot at distinguishing between the forest and its trees. I say there are only two kinds of writers: 1) good writers; 2) bad writers.
Richard Walter is a novelist and author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, screenwriter, script consultant, lecturer and recently retired Professor and Associate and Interim Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where, for more than forty years, he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting. He has written scripts for the major studios and television networks, including the earliest drafts of American Graffiti; lectured on screenwriting and storytelling and conducted master classes throughout North America as well as London, Paris, Jerusalem, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Hong Kong.
He is also a pop culture commentator, blogger and media pundit who has made numerous appearances on The Today Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country and CBS News Nightwatch, among many other high-profile national television programs. More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have been published about him and the program he directed at UCLA. For more information and to sign up for his newsletter, visit www.richardwalter.com. Contact Professor Walter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Richard Walter 2019